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We arrived at Fort Ticonderoga on a photo album summer morning, the kind with azure sky polka-dotted with cauliflower clouds. Bright sunlight danced on the waters of Lake Champlain that tickled the sides of the Ticonderoga peninsula. It would have been enough just to sit and soak up the mountain scenery, but there lay ahead the imposing star-shaped Fort, and our crew had adventure in mind.


Out of the car tumbled grandsons Will, 7, and Charlie, 10, who beetled across the parking lot, with Granny and D.G. struggling to keep up.  We postponed until departure a stop at the gift shop near the entrance and headed straight for the two-tiered stone structure to explore. Although we had a wonderful 17” x 22” map and guide to help us plan our route and activities, along with a special itinerary page for kid-friendly activities and tours, it was clear that the kids’ curiosity and imagination would direct their initial foray into history.

Under the barracks and onto the parade grounds we go!

We passed through an archway that had been fashioned in the base of the massive stonework of the barracks  on the parade grounds just as the fife and drum corps was assembling there.

Historically the fife and drum corps was designed to play “duty calls”
to direct the troops as well as to entertain on occasion.

As we sat on benches, the officer of the day barked commands in French, and the musicians began to play, the trilling fife melodies punctuated by the rat-a-tat of the drums. We fell in behind them as they marched in formation back through the arch to the flag pole for the raising of the flag.

Watching the fife and drum corps warm up for flag-raising.

A tour was beginning about then, and we joined it, again playing by ear and acting on impulse. Our guide explained that during each year at Fort Ticonderoga, a different year of the Fort’s history is represented. We were to imagine that we had arrived in 1756, just months after construction had begun, when it was known as Fort Carillon. The guide’s uniform was that of the Languedoc Regiment, sent from France to help the French settlers in New France just north of the lake. Their mission was to gain control of Lake Champlain, the all-important waterway that would assure dominion over the entire Champlain Valley, territory currently laid claim to by Britain, and coveted by the French.

We were, it seemed, getting in on the ground floor of the long and complicated history of this Fort that served multiple armies during two wars in our national history, wars that were to determine ownership of a substantial chunk of real estate.  It was part of what we know as the “French and Indian War” –the North American spin-off of Europe’s Seven Year War.

After some initial remarks, the guide led us back to the parade ground and invited us to sit on benches that were nicely shaded by of the south wall of the Fort. Our guide, standing in front of us, was not so fortunate, as he stood beyond the shadow, in the full summer sun. He mopped his brow and squinted up at it, saying, “I guess it’s because I’m not wearing enough layers of wool this morning!”

Our guide delivered a comprehensive overview of the history of Fort Carillon/Fort Ticonderoga.

He soldiered on, however, leading us through the progression of events at the Fort, telling how soldiers had cultivated extensive gardens to feed the summer garrison, a project that required a large tract of land. It was named le Jardin du Roi. Still cultivated, it is now called The King’s Garden and still provides food for the Fort. Kids are delighted to know that nowadays, during the late summer, it also is the site of a large corn maze.

The 1755-56 log walls of Fort Carillon soon were replaced by stone walls, built is a star configuration to give maximum advantage to the soldiers fighting there. Brass cannons were mounted in notches in the walls, and today’s cannons, although not the same that were used in the 1750s, are of the same vintage as the originals, sporting the classic verdigris patina.

It was 1757 that General Montcalm set out from Fort Carillon to destroy Britain’s Fort William Henry, at the south end of Lake George – a 32-mile-long lake that is very near Lake Champlain, but which requires a grueling portage over a steep and rocky ridge. Montcalm, with his soldiers and strong contingent of Indians from many regional tribes, was successful.  The next year the Rogers’ Rangers, a colonial militia, waged the bloody Battle on Snowshoes. General Abercromby (sometimes spelled “Abercrombie”) attempted to take the Fort Carillon with 16,000-17,000 soldiers, which included the Scottish Black Watch. The 3,700 soldiers manning Carillon were victorious, while Abercromby lost 2,000 men in the terrible rout.

The British were nothing, if not persistent, and the 1759 siege of Fort Carillon by their General Amherst succeeded. The French troops escaped, blowing up the powder magazine before vacating. Amherst took charge, repaired the Fort, and dubbed it Fort Ticonderoga.

The Fort was still under British command at the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775, and the colonists noted that it was vulnerable. Three weeks after defeat at Lexington and Concord, the colonists, under Benedict Arnold, scored their first victory of the war. Arnold went on to create the beginnings of the first US Navy – with ships built in Whitehall, NY, farther south on the lake, and outfitted at the Fort.  Two years later, the tables turned. British forces under Burgoyne moved down from Canadian strongholds they had acquired in the French and Indian War and, with German allies, forced the Americans out of Fort Ticonderoga.   Burgoyne’s goal was to take over the both Champlain and Lake George, and work his way south to capture Albany, cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies. Burgoyne’s play was foiled at the battle of Saratoga, aptly called the “turning point” of the American Revolution.

The guide’s rendition of the tale was much more detailed and colorful than mine, and I sat entranced. As you might imagine, however, our youngsters were growing fidgety, so we exited the tour and let them do more exploring. And this is where I insert the note that we could have-and should have-gone on a shorter tour tailored just for kids had we not jumped at the first opportunity.

Activities and tours for young visitors are abundant.

 I’d recommend that option for family with children under age 14. Kids in particular will enjoy watching artisans and tradesmen around the Fort demonstrating and talking with them about such tasks as making shoes, sewing clothing or building. There are many interactive projects to engage youngsters, and some exhibits that may be touched.

Around the Fort you’ll see artisans and tradesmen practicing
arts that kept the troops fed, housed and clothed.

When kids in your party get antsy, pull out the map and find the many trails to hike. Adults may also be interested in a canoe adventure around the peninsula and to the point along the shoreline where the LaChute River, which is the outlet of Lake George, comes cascading down the mountain and dumps into Lake Champlain.  A less strenuous (and drier) option is a cruise aboard the Carillon, with a narrator explaining more about the role that Lake Champlain played in history.

Military history, of course, is the major emphasis at Fort Ticonderoga, but any visitor can find things to enjoy and savor. When asked what guests who are new to the Fort should know, Lauren MacLeod, communications officer of the Fort, said, “Fort Ticonderoga is a family destination and a center for learning. A visit is an interactive, multi-faceted experience. It’s exploring the beautiful gardens, finding adventure in our events, marching with the Fife and Drum Corps, and learning about a historic trade. Visitors can engage in a number of interactive experiences as they walk through the restored Fort, immerse themselves in the history of Lake Champlain on a boat tour, and spend an afternoon in our exhibit galleries exploring our premier collections. …Every day is an event at Fort Ticonderoga and every year is a new experience. This year, museum staff are representing soldiers of the Languedoc Regiment of 1756, and accompany this with interactive family programming, behind-the-scenes and evening tours, musket demonstrations, and more.”

“And more” is a major understatement. The Fort houses a museum with an outstanding collection, and a significant library. It hosts special events throughout its season, and even private affairs such as corporate functions or weddings. It offers teaching programs for educators, some courses earning credits at nearby colleges.

Shortly after the Revolution, Fort Ticonderoga came under ownership of New York State. Then, according to the Fort’s website, “Ownership of the site was transferred jointly to Union and Columbia colleges in 1803. In 1820 the Fort and its 546-acre garrison grounds were purchased by successful New York merchant William Ferris Pell who began the legacy of the Pell family’s preservation of the site.” And what a legacy it was! Preservation led to reconstruction.

The story continues: “1909 the Pell family began the restoration of the Fort and the creation of the museum. 1931 Stephen H.P. Pell created the Fort Ticonderoga Association to manage the site in perpetuity.” The Fort Ticonderoga Association also has acquired three nearby mountain-tops of great military significance—Mt. Defiance, Mt. Independence and Mt. Hope. Since then the attraction has been recognized for its excellence.  

This hazy picture shows the view of Fort Ticonderoga from nearby Mt. Defiance, which also was
fortified in the 18th and 19th centuries, due to the strategic mountaintop location.

Visiting Fort Ticonderoga is time well-spent. It helps one understand and appreciate history in a way no textbook ever can, and builds memories for families. The activities engage young and old in the site’s past and bring it alive. According to Ms. MacLeod, there is one thing you should know before venturing forth. “Before a visit to Fort Ticonderoga, visitors should prepare themselves for a very dynamic experience. Nothing is static about this site!”

A drone’s-eye view of “Fort Ti.” Photo courtesy Fort Ticonderoga website.

This writer seconds that opinion.

Fort Ticonderoga is located in Ticonderoga, NY, just an hour from Lake George Village and two hours north of Albany, NY. According to the Fort’s website, you may visit May through November, or during special events or programs.

Plan your visit at www.fortticonderoga.org.

 


 

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